Thursday, August 31, 2017

Upstate girls


Known as “Collar City” because of its roots in textile production, the City of Troy in Rensselaer County has a storied history as one of the most prosperous cities in American history. Through much of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century the city was home to thriving shirt factories and steel mills. Its position along the Hudson River made Troy a key point for meat and vegetable shipments from Vermont to New York City. A significant source of the city’s wealth came from the steel industry. Ore and coal were shipped from the Midwest on the Erie Canal to Troy, where the materials were processed before making their way down the Hudson to New York City. Today, early examples of the nation’s first steel structural supports and iron storefronts can be found in the city’s architecture. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the best engineering schools in the country, was founded there in 1824.

Photographer Brenda Kenneally’s exhibit Upstate Girls: Unravelling Collar City tells a much different story. The city that was once a shining start of the Industrial Revolution has been hit hard by industrial decline. By 2013, the City’s poverty rate had reached 28% and unemployment hit 8.3%. The Troy residents pictured in Upstate Girls are young women from families who have been left behind by another kind of revolution.


During an artist talk on August 26 at Hudson Hall in Hudson, Kenneally introduced the audience to her project that documents a group of teenagers in poverty-stricken Troy as they move in and out of apartments, serve prison sentences, have babies, and live through addiction, broken families, and failing relationships. In her short film “Blood and Jelly” she shows families celebrating births, eating food, and living lives in their homes. The babies are being born to teenage girls, the food is almost entirely highly processed, and the apartments are filthy and disorganized. Children are unclothed and adults wear pajamas all day. Kenneally talked about the prevalence of sugary and salty foods and how their addictive nature keeps people like her subjects placated.


Also present was writer Linda Tirado who, along with Kenneally, recounted her experience living in poverty and how addiction contributes to the overwhelming prevalence of chemically manufactured food in the diets of poor people.  “The addiction manifests itself even when you don’t realize it,” said Tirado.

Kenneally and Tirado responded to the common why-do-poor-people-eat-so-much-junk-food reaction to their work with the fact that poor people, especially those living in food deserts, and must choose between terrible and worse. The two women recounted a shared experience of the social backlash to their work. Their willingness to share the stories of the poor opened their subjects, and themselves, to vile reactions and judgement from viewers. They talked about how we demoralize lower classes for how they comfort themselves and how at the same time they’re not able to defend themselves. Part of the problem is that there exists insufficient language to help us talk about how little people exist on. Tirado explained these two tracks of society were as firmly in place in the past as they are today, and she doubted that people could have an honest discussion in the current political climate when people are consumed with fighting about what’s fake news and what is not.


Kenneally’s work was displayed as part of the LightField festival of “lens-based art” spotlighting social issues and generating discussion about the role of visual storytelling, as well as including diverse participation from the community of gentrifying community of Hudson. The Hudson Hall displays were part of the JUST THE FACTS exhibit investigating marginalized people left behind by technology and globalization

Kenneally’s photos, of survival and resilience, will be released in a 300-page book in 2018. She established A Little Creative Class, Inc., a nonprofit, to benefit people like those pictured in her work. The mentorship program targets youths ages 18-21 who live outside of New York City, offering them opportunities to explore art and help them reach their full potential and find economic self-sufficiency in an increasingly idea-based economy. The program removes youths, whose capacity was diminished from the beginning, from the daily drama, scarcity and violence of their neighborhoods to expose them to a drama-free environment where they can explore art and science. The organization’s website outlines the science behind child development and creativity:  
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.


Some of the Little Creative Class participants were present at the artist talk and spoke about their experience. Participants who return to their communities are encouraged to act as mentors, bringing knowledge, connections, and tools to new faces.

Brenda Kenneally: www.brendakenneally.com
A Little Creative Class, Inc.: www.alittlecreativeclass.org
LightField Festival of Photography & Multimedia Art: www.lightfield.vu

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Water sources


What’s in your water? Maybe medicine that was flushed down the toilet, chemicals seeping from a landfill, pesticides or fuel. The path of contaminants from their source to our drinking water was the issue at the center of the Newburgh Clean Water Project’s recent meeting.

Almost everyone who lives in or near Newburgh is familiar with the water supply’s contamination with PFOS. Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid is a key ingredient in firefighting foam and when it was identified in Newburgh’s water supply from Washington Lake, the NYS DEC took action to identify Stewart Air National Guard base as a source. The focus of the meeting of the Newburgh Clean Water Project was to educate the public about the situation. Besides offering a platform for discussion, the local action group gave a presentation on local water contamination and prepped attendees with materials for letter writing.

The chemical was first identified in 2014 and since then the Stewart Air National Guard Base as a Superfund site which requires it be cleaned up by the Department of Defense. The City offers blood testing for residents, but PFOS testing is different than the lead testing the general public is more familiar with. Not only are there fewer labs that offer the service, but the tests require a doctor’s prescription. Organizers proposed one solution: a public meeting at St. Luke’s hospital with a doctor onsite to write prescriptions. Another interesting practice that was discussed was the Department of Health’s tracking of test results. Though the agency tracks cancer diagnoses and clusters, they don’t track non-cancer health effects such as neurological and kidney issues caused by our environments. These are studied by the Center for Disease Control.


It was fascinating to learn that the City of Newburgh’s water system was designed in the 19th century when the lands were natural and pristine. Since then, the advent of the automobile and construction of the Interstate highway system moved the transportation hub from the Hudson River westward toward the intersection of I-84 and I-87.

Presenters referred to another case of contaminated water in the village of Hoosick Falls in Rensselaer County. In 2015 community members contacted the government with concerns after their own testing revealed contaminants, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Trichloroethylene (TCE), in the water. This led to the village’s Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, its largest employer, to be placed on the EPA’s superfund site list. A Superfund site is land identified as containing hazardous waste and has been identified by the EPA as being a risk to human health and/or the environment. The sites are put on a list and remediation is made a top priority.


The group’s presentation included observances made during a recent walking tour of the affected areas. Aerial maps showed how the City’s water supply is sourced from outside its boundaries, limiting the City’s ability to legislate for its own safety. It was fascinating to see an unlined capped landfill in New Windsor that I didn’t know existed. Organizers explained the strategic designation of wetlands in the heart of the region we were examining. Wetlands are important for water purification, shoreline stabilization, ground water recharge, and they act as protection from floods. The map indicated, in green color, a region of wetlands sitting downhill from Stewart ANG base. The small splotches of green indicated regions that measured 12 acres or less, which are classified as insignificant wetlands. If the divisions caused by man-made roadways were combined, the wetlands region would total 50-70 acres. The map showed the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline project which would cut straight through the region.

The group distributed materials to help attendees draft and mail letters to politicians and the Department of Defense, and stressed the importance of asking smart and informed questions to politicians who are already overwhelmed. They stressed that our local water safety issue is at the same time an international issue. Urban planners, businesses, and environmental activists worldwide have this same discussion. It is possible to simultaneously have our businesses and clean water, and it’s important to not hastily blame unethical decisions for the contaminants in our water, but be mindful that they are perhaps simply the result of poor planning. The group’s mission comes from a place of a long-term solution: not fighting lots of small fires or having to renew the same fight again in five or so years for yet another chemical.

Newburgh Clean Water Project: www.facebook.com/newburghcleanwaterproject

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Obtainable objects


One of my favorite places in Newburgh is the Ann Street Gallery. This award winning space on Ann Street features contemporary art exhibits and I was excited to experience Bon Marche on its very last day. Translated from French as ‘cheap’ or ‘a good deal,’ the exhibit featured lower priced works, mostly prints, of incredible variety: beetles, cityscapes, cupcakes, cats, and postage stamps were just a few. A massive concrete block covered with the image of a horse lay on the floor and 3D paper collages were displayed in the center of the entrance.  


Though the gallery is small, the works displayed gave a comprehensive look at the art of printmaking. As indicated on their website:

With over 200 distinctive pieces by 48 artists from across the country and abroad, the show presents a fluid exchange of ideas and explores the endless possibilities open to contemporary printmakers. Every form of the printmaking technique is covered, including calligraphy, etching, monotype, metal relief, dry point, silkscreen, polyp late, screen-printing, lithography, woodcut, collage, and digital. Viewers of the exhibition can also expect to see some original prints that break new ground in the use of the medium.


Up next at the gallery is the Interaction of Colour, a group exhibit about the visual element of color and how it shapes how we feel.

Ann Street Gallery: www.annstreetgallery.org

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Refugee experience


What is it like to pack for a destination unknown? To leave a war torn home, unsure if you’ll ever return? These are the questions faced by the protagonist in Marina Antropow Cramer’s novel Roads. The author read excerpts from her novel and answered questions at the Fullerton Center for Culture & History in Newburgh on Saturday June 24. 

Set in Yalta and Germany during the World War II, the story follows Filip, a young Russian man whose life is put on hold by the war. Filip dreams of going to university to make his mark in the world as an architect, but is stopped by the war which robs him of the some of the most formative years of his life and now he and his family can only try to stay alive.


Antropow Cramer talked about the political climate of the region during Nazi descent into Filip’s homeland and how families had few options. An excerpt illustrated the family considering what to take when they realized abandoning home was imminent. They questioned what would happen to the items they left behind. Even if refugees were given the chance to return home they found it much different than before they left.  

The author talked about how most books explore a question or seek to help people better understand something. Her book’s theme centers around the plight of refugees. Antropow Cramer was born into a family of refugees from the Soviet Union

She had heard stories and as she would explain her ancestry, realized she didn’t know the material well. ”When you don’t know much, it shows when you try to explain it to someone else,” she said.


The book is not about her family, but is set around the experience shared by her ancestors. Armed with the knowledge that stories can be nostalgic and romanticized when passed down through the oral tradition, she first made sure the historical framework of dates and events was accurate. Antropow Cramer visited the area, but not Yalta itself, and she encouraged us to question if that fact is an advantage or not. Would actually being there help the author tell the story? The Yalta of today is much different than the Yalta of the 1940s.

The title “Roads” stems from a 1945 song dealing with war, brotherhood, and losing and leaving people. Song, food and stories are a common thread of the refugee tapestry. Does the story have a happy ending? The author says that’s a matter of interpretation.

Marina Antropow Cramer: www.marinaantropowcramer.com

Fullerton Center for Culture & History: www.fullertonculturalcenter.wordpress.com

Monday, June 26, 2017

Omelas & suffering


There’s one piece of literature from middle school (or high school, I don’t remember) that stays with me. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a 1973 short story by Ursula Le Guin, a descriptive tale with no timeline. A joyous festival takes place in a Utopian paradise: horses with braided manes being readied for a race by children with mud-stained feet, dancing in the street, music, grand parks and moss-grown gardens, a child playing a wooden flute. There exists no king, no swords, no slaves, no clergy.  

The perfection of Omelas and the indulgences enjoyed by its residents is contingent upon a horrendous situation in the basement of one of its magnificent buildings. The situation is not a secret. Everyone is aware, and it is explained to children when they are about 8 or 12. Though all are shocked and sickened and wonder what they can do to help, they turn around and retreat to Omelas’ magnificent architecture and abundant harvests. 

But some react differently.

"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates."


We’ve all seen the hidden camera clips of chicks being stomped to death by the dozens at factory farms, or dogs suffering horrendous effects while subject to medical experiments. It’s suffering that most of us turn away from because it’s hard to think about, justifying our complicit support by reasoning that the ends justify the means.


My friend Susan and I recently did a volunteer day at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls. The sanctuary regularly rescues farmed animals from horrific circumstances and its residents represent a tiny sliver of the most exploited animals in the world.  The 150-acre site houses over 340 animals including chickens, cows, goats, sheep, and others. Volunteers can sign up in advance to help muck pens and clean enclosures, while visitors are welcome to tour the sanctuary as well. We spend our time shoveling the turkey barns, and then doing the same for the goats area. The center’s website has great resources about their history, animal exploitation, volunteer and visitor resources, and an online store.

The sanctuary advocates veganism as a path we can take to reduce suffering. It’s important to remember who suffers for our first world luxuries and making sure our choices align with our values is key to becoming a conscious consumer.


Woodstock Farm Sanctuary: www.woodstocksanctuary.org
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Stay in


Lately I’ve been thinking about sugar, particularly of the added variety. Donuts, cookies, sugary drink- so common, but just nutritionally void. When I was in middle school, every day for lunch I would eatc a lemon Snapple and a chipwich ice cream sandwich. Studies reveal again and again that sugar causes obesity, diabetes, etc—but we continue to eat something stuff that gives us nothing physically. The worst is when junk foods take the place of healthy choices, like the lunch I ate every day in school.

Last month my friend Susan and I stayed at Arbor Bed & Breakfast in High Falls. I know “charming” is an overused description, but it fits. I’m definitely a breakfast person and have been my whole life, so I was excited to see our host served cereal, and it was a sugar-free variety.


High Falls is a rural artsy village and the Arbor is a short walk from the village center. The B&B’s proprietor, Nancy, was familiar with guests, like us, who stay with her as part of volunteer service at the nearby Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. Nancy’s home is large and offers multiple spaces, each named a different color, for guests to choose from. Outside are a porch and garden, and indoors near the kitchen is a reading room filled with art books and info on local cultural interests and attractions. Nancy can accommodate small weddings and dinner parties.


For the breakfast Nancy prepared for us, she accommodated my friend Susan’s vegan diet. She can prepare for guests a bag lunch, especially welcome for farm sanctuary volunteers.

Though our stay at the Arbor was short, we left a charming reminder of what it feels like to have someone make you breakfast. 


Arbor Bed & Breakfast: www.arborbb.com

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Habitat changes


It’s a funny thing when a transformation renders a once-popular nickname irrelevant. Strolling past clean, well-maintained homes on a certain section of East Parmenter Street in Newburgh, you’d never guess that until a few years ago this area was dubbed “crack alley”.

Earlier this month I took a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tour with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, a free public event similar to an open house and bus tour of their projects within the city. The event began at Habitat’s main office on Washington Street with a video about the agency. Staff elaborated on Habitat’s mission, we heard testimonials from homeowner families who escaped housing issues like overcrowding and deterioration, and volunteers talked about what inspired them to start working with the organization.


Executive Director Kathy Collins demonstrated the impact of Habitat and the needs it meets. The organization has served 101 families since its founding and is about to dedicate its 88th house next month. In addition to also constructing shelters for families in other countries, most recently in Mexico and Haiti, the organization does minor exterior repairs for agencies that serve the community. Collins explained the family selection process from home visits to the final decision made by the board of directors. Staff talked about situations that face families such as severe overcrowding, children seeping in closets, poorly-functioning bathrooms, fuseboxes located in a separate apartment, and apartments entirely without electricity. One family had a heater that shot fire into the center of the living quarters. The cabinets in one family’s kitchen were covered in aluminum foil to shield them from leaks from an upstairs apartment. Other examples were a toilet that spun around. Why do families stay in these situations? Many either don’t know their rights or they fear eviction. The families who qualify for assistance are hardworking and employed, but don’t have the means to walk away from a bad situation.


Staff answered common frequently asked questions and dispelled myths about how families are chosen. Staff examine a family’s income, their work history, and their ability to partner with the agency by providing 250-500 hours of “sweat equity” in their own home, that of another, or at the ReStore shop. Families must take classes on budgeting, credit, home repair, and how to be a good neighbor. Habitat is funded through individual gifts, volunteers, and some government funding usually for the purpose of lead and asbestos abatement.

Next was a tour of some of the organization’s projects. We began by walking next door to 123 Washington Street to explore a live/work project which combines living and commercial space. This style targets entrepreneurs and this particular home belonged to a photographer and his family. The Collins explained that Whirlpool donates stoves and fridges to each project, and that the bamboo flooring we stood upon was allergen-free and more sustainable than hardwoods.  


We boarded a small bus for the mobile part of our tour. The use of bus itself was donated and driven by Frank, the CFO is local Leprechaun Lines. Heading down Ann Street we saw a 3-family building being stabilized alongside a grassy lot that was to remain as green space. Next up was a Veterans Build project on Clark Street, 3 gut rehabs in different stages on South Miller Street. Some of these projects were partnership with the Newburgh Community Land Bank and RUPCO and are part of a plan to stabilize the whole block. One home featured lumber from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. As we viewed projects, staff passed around photos of buildings with boarded windows and charred roofs, to show us how they looked before renovations. 


On our drive down Chambers Street we learned this block had no sidewalks at the start. Habitat doesn’t use vinyl siding on buildings, but prefers a hardy cementitious version. Next we crossed Broadway and turned onto East Parmenter, formerly known as “crack alley”, which featured projects completed by Americorps volunteers and Faith Build. Other building groups include Women Build, Episcopal Build, Gap Industries, Veterans Build, Health build with Saint Luke’s Hospital, and Education Build. Around the corner stood a building used as transitional housing for families in dire circumstances until their homes are ready.

This regularly scheduled tour is a great way to learn and ask questions about how the organization is reshaping the footprint of the City of Newburgh as they work to eradicate poverty, bring the American dream to more people, better the health and wellbeing of children, generate city revitalization and environmental restoration, develop community, and expand the tax base.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh: www.habitatnewburgh.org